We all know walking is great exercise. What’s less acknowledged is that it was once America’s most popular sport.
The sport was called Pedestrianism. Participants, both men and women, competed solo or in teams, combining speed and endurance in long-distance jaunts that would test the mettle of any of today’s athletes.
Origin of the sport can be traced back to Great Britain where it was already popular in the mid-eighteenth century. It spread to the United States and had its greatest vogue in the1870s before losing out to the “newer” sports of baseball and football, though some of the big names were still competing as late as the 1920s. Coupled with competition for spectators and money with other sports, the sport lost its luster through “gimmickry.”
The true proponents were amazing athletes and deserve recognition for their accomplishments.
Among the greats were: Edward Payson Weston, who is generally credited with launching the sport in America; Daniel O’Leary, who logged 300,000 miles during his lifetime and who was said to be still capable of walking a mile in nine minutes up until his death at the age of 90; Frank Hart, one of the nation’s first black athletes; Eleanora Sears, an all-around sportswoman who broke many records, and Hugh Donahue, who one walked 1,100 miles in as many hours.
There were some earlier walkers of note, such as Joshua Newman, who walked 1,000 miles in 18 days in the 1830s, Nicholas Low, who did 200 miles in 200 hours in 1841, and even a woman, a Miss C. C. Cushman, who strode 500 miles in 500 hours in 1851 as a proponent of the new “Bloomer” fashion. But it was Weston who “created” the American version of the sport in February 1861 when he walked from Boston to Washington, D.C., to settle an election bet.
Despite extreme cold, deep snows and driving rain, Weston completed the more than 400 mile jaunt in his proposed 10 days. His prize—a bag of peanuts. The feat attracted considerable publicity and Weston saw opportunity.
Soon he was proposing other distance walks to break existing British records and promoters were eager to put up prize money. This attracted other athletes who wanted to compete against Weston and one another. In addition to the distance races which were followed by referees, timekeepers and spectators on horseback and in buggies, competitions were held in arenas and also drew large crowds. A popular variation was the “go-as-you-please” race, which allowed participants to combine walking with running.
Weston later became a reporter for the New York Herald, but records indicate he spent more time walking than writing.
Wins championship belt
In 1879 he won the world champion Astley Belt by outpacing then-champion Henry “Blower” Brown on a London track. Later the same year in New York, he lost the belt to another Englishman, Charles Rowell, in what was considered the best-attended sporting event in the United States up until that time.
Weston reportedly was never happy in those events that confined him to a circular track. He preferred and excelled in the cross-country marathons.
A small and wiry man (he stood five-foot, seven-inches in height and weighed 130 pounds in his prime), he was made for distance. His pace was said to be so fast referees needed fresh horses along the route to keep up with him. In 1867 in a match billed as “The Great Pedestrian Feat” by newspapers, Weston walked 1,237.5 miles, from Portland,
Maine, to Chicago in 26 days, getting so far ahead of schedule he was able to stop and give lectures and attend church. He made it a practice to never walk on Sundays and always went to church.
Weston’s last big trek was in 1913 when he walked from New York to Minneapolis (1,546 miles in 51 days) at the age of 74.
Felled by a taxicab
Ironically, the man whose fleet feet had brought him fame and who preached the automobile was making people lazy, was struck by a taxicab in 1927 and spent the last two years of his life in a wheelchair.
Long before that time pedestrianism had become mere exhibition rather than sport. Early on it was criticized for promoting gambling. And, as spectators were lost to other sports, promoters and participants began adding gimmicks
in an effort to restore interest. Some included feats of strength and endurance; others were simply silly.
Some participants walked backwards or carried an anvil or other heavy weight. Among the weirdest were Leon Pierre Federmeyer, a Frenchman, who pushed a wheelbarrow cross-country in 1878 and Robert Russell, whose technique was to walk underwater in a diving suit.
Though it deteriorated as a sport, the accomplishments of these early athletes should not be forgotten.